MALTA DIARY: Legends and natural cures in popular folklore – some pretty disgusting!
Before medicants started handing out anit-biotechs left, right and centre, Maltese and Gozitan folks had their own homeopathy remedies handed down by generations mainly using natural substances, common plants and vegetables but also incorporating some very curious traditions.
From boyhood days I well remember a commonly-spread cure for chilblains, mainly because of its disgusting nature. People suffering such exposure to cold weather symptoms causing sores and redness were advised to bathe the affected areas in warm urine. The very thought of it used to spread chilblains up and down my own spine.
A milder cure for headaches, blocked noses and general colds was that of slicing a raw potato and strapping this around the forehead, alternatively using a peeled onion. Still disgusting but not as lethally disgusting as warm urine.
Yet recently I came across something even more disgusting. Some mothers used to preserve their newborn baby’s umbilical cord in powder and when later the child developed a cold they would be given the cord to smell – apparently a cure for their cold.
There were further uses for an umbilical chord. Some believed it should be mashed and mixed with rain water, buried in soil and watered frequently so as to prevent a baby suffering from boils, pimples and other skin eruptions.
Equally disgusting was the belief that according to one theory, the mother of a newly born baby had to eat a hen’s neck and head on the day after delivering the baby. Failure to do that would mean the child would take three months to start keeping its neck and head erect. In nearby Sicily the tradition was that the father should eat the neck and head so as to enable the baby to move its neck and head freely.
I don’t recall being told that my parents or grandparents – hopefully – didn’t resort to any of these but I am certain they knew about them. When I was born there were no maternity hospitals and births took place at home in the presence of a local midwife. A doctor or any kind of medicine was a luxury many simply could not afford.
Almost all these practices have nowadays been discontinued but nevertheless there may be some curative powers that are actual but no longer used.
Nowadays a rarity, sea urchins were previously abundant around Malta’s shores. Encroaching development and a rise in population has largely now made them a rarity because of their much sought-after edible content and sea pollution. There was a difference in being wounded by one of their spines depending on whether the urchin was still alive or not because the spine of a dead urchin tended to be poisonous and it was quite common to tread on one on a rocky foreshore. One popular remedy was to draw out the spine or spines cutting up an onion, roasting it and then applying it to the affected skin. There was also said to be an immediate cure by using the same onion treatment for a bee or a wasp sting.
It was more common to burn and blacken a sewing needle and then use it as a hot poker to poke and scratch out the sea urchin spine, and that was pretty painful too as I experienced all too often as a boy.
With much more stretches of countryside then, before widespread and horrendous urban development, the squirting cucumber grew profically everywhere on roadside verges and in fields. This is a Mediterranean plant and part of the gourd family bearing a small pod – not even the remotest resemblance to a cucumber mind you – which drops from the plant readily when ripe and forcibly expels an irritant pulpy liquid containing its seeds.
I used to seek them out and make them pop at the risk of getting a clip around the ear if an adult was present because the liquid was said to be blinding if it entered the eye. However, the more optimistic believed that a concoction of the liquid cured jaundice and people who smelt the plant frequently were said to avoid contracting jaundice.
If you had your foot stamped on by a horse or a donkey but managed to avoid a nasty fracture it would inevitably swell because of the congealed blood. The remedy was to ground and powder the dried rue plant and apply the powder to the swollen area to stop the blood congealing.
Rue fried in hot oil was also used to treat as an embrocation for body swells and boils and some chewed rue leaves, spat them out and then smelt them as a cure for sore and infected eyes.
The borage plant too was widespread and readily available as it grew everywhere. When boiled thoroughly and reduced to an extract and then drunk, this was said to be the best cure for coughing fits and particularly for children with whooping cough.
A piece of red cloth or wearing red clothing, or being covered with red blankets was said to be a quick cure for measels because the redness of the cloth was said to absorb the redness of the resultant spots. This however was internationally widespread and common in the United Kingdom as far back as before the Dark Ages.
A sliced fresh lemon rubbed over the body was said to prevent the growth of warts and ringworms and lemon juice is today still commonly used in the treatment of gastric ailments and dysentery as well as stomach upsets.
Lemons have great versatility and there’s nothing to beat piping hot lemon juice laced with sugar or honey to ease sore throats, headaches and colds.
Before the advent of sophisticated door locks, large iron keys, as large as the palm of a hand, were widespread door locks. They had another handy use. One was to stop nose bleeds by placing the cold iron key on the neck and the other as a cure for hiccups when the cold metal key was dragged along the bare back, thus creating shock treatment and halting hiccups.
Another common cure for dysentery was feeding the albumen of an egg to affected children while it was also said to heal broken goats‘ legs. Only God knows why or how!
Lack of hygiene made eye stys common but when a child had a sty a handful of barley grains was thrown down a well.
Of a more bizarre nature sailors were advised to carry a dried sea cock fish in their pockets near their skin so as to prevent malaria.
A whitlow cure was to have some breadcrumbs and ask a breast-feeding mother for some drops of her milk to mix with the crumbs, boil, cool and spread over the infected finger.
Olives and olive oil are an ingrained part of the Mediterranean culture, as much as bad luck, evil spells, evil spirits and the evil eye. To counter evil and drive away the devil spirit that had entered a household or a person’s body, it was common practice to burn dried olive leaves and thus smoke out the evil spirit and sometimes the burnt ashes were sprinkled throughout the house. This is still a very common place remedy used right down to the present day.
Maybe some of these practices were pretty disgusting and maybe some were actually effective, but thankfully most of them have now been swept away by the mists and cobwebs of time.